Digital Humanities
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Mapping Visualization Tools: Tableau and/or Google My Maps


Click Image above to watch! Enable Closed Captions to view shared links


This mapping skill share tutorial aims to:

  • Introduce beginner/intermediate level users to two mapping visualization tools
  • Compare the visualizations created from Tableau and Google My Maps
  • Explain the tool selection process

The Circus Historical Society’s vast collection of circus route data has been on my mind for a long time now, just waiting for the right way to incorporate it into a larger project. The data I had cleaned and collected was fairly simple – essentially a town with a date – and I wanted a fairly straight-forward visualization. Still, I was having a hard time finding the right tool to use. I found a lot of different tools, but kept running into different road blocks. First, the majority of GIS type programs were way beyond the type of visualization I wanted to create. Secondly, I had already spent a good amount of time cleaning data and I was not eager to create vector files or go searching for the longitude / latitude of each point in my dataset. Then the other issue I was hoping to avoid was the simple problem of access. I didn’t want to purchase any software since it was important that the visualization be easily repeatable. Both Tableau and Google My Maps allow for sharing links and embedding codes with available to the public data.

Already familiar with the program, I had high hopes for using Tableau but soon found out the geographical information supporting maps in Tableau doesn’t include smaller towns. This meant I would lose a substantial enough portion of my dataset that I went back to searching for alternative mapping tools. At this point I more or less stumbled onto Google My Maps – which had been hiding in plain enough site for over a year. Google My Maps uses the same familiar engine as Google Maps, but allows users to add large amounts of data to a map in a single import.

 logo  google-my-maps-logo-regular-2x-001
User has option to create other visualization(s) with the same data in one document User doesn’t have to download any programs & content is auto-saved in Google Drive
Program includes a dynamic time line function Program registers geographic locations too small to be recognized by other mapping tools
Labels and Tool Tips are infinitely editable Option exists to add image annotations directly from the web


There’s one other more subtle point to mention here in Google My Maps’ favor. Though Tableau is certainly gaining ground, the ubiquitous streamlined nature of Google products means a wider audience is already habituated to reading information produced in their style.

In the end though, the real decision maker for me was the ability to absorb small town data. The Circus Historical Society has hundreds of routes listed on their site and this mapping project could easily be applied to all of them so, with that in mind, Tableau’s finer points don’t quite outweigh the hours spared fixing data.


Additional notes on the tutorial

You can visit these maps as part of the fuller project, Tack Spitter Circus.

Informal usability tests were conducted with the help of two individuals: a Geography Department graduate, and a recent MLS graduate. The geography graduate was not familiar with either of the programs, though did report frequent use of Google Maps. The MLS candidate was somewhat familiar with Tableau and also reported use of Google’s map engine, though not the My Maps component.

The key comments taken from user feedback were:

  • Each product needs some (brief) introduction to the program itself – before instructions.
  • Each program should have a review section after the visualization has been created.
  • Tableau has a timeline ‘Pages’ element that I hadn’t included in the initial tutorial.
  • A side by side comparison of the programs would be useful.

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